Macro photography opens up a whole new photographic playground and encourages creativity. You can photograph objects that the naked eye might not see. It’s a way of discovering the abstract and a great way of practicing your compositional skills.
The magnified view through the lens is made up of shapes, spaces, textures, colour and light. It’s another world to explore and it’s just outside your back door or in your living room.
In this article I will be discussing equipment, techniques and how to make your own macro lens from your basic lens kit.
To start with you need to know whether the lenses you have will ˜go macro’. To find out, place something small in front of your camera, such as a pin or coin. Set your camera to manual focus and turn the focus ring towards the minimum distance. Now move your camera towards your subject to achieve focus.
If you are able to make the subject fill or nearly fill the frame and remain in focus, then your lens has macro capabilities. Otherwise you may have a lens with ˜close-up’ capabilities. Zooms that have a macro setting tend to be just close-up lenses and won’t be able to photograph a subject at true 1:1 ratio (life size) or closer.
Generally, a macro lens will have macro written on it but it’s always good practice to see how close you can focus with your standard zoom ” you might be surprised at how close it will focus. Even your telephoto lens can become a close-up lens at .25 magnification.
Don’t be put off if you find you haven’t got a 1:1 ratio macro; there are ways of making your existing gear simulate macro capabilities, although the results will not be quite as sharp as you will achieve with a dedicated macro lens. Options include simple screw-in diopters for the front of the lens that act like a magnifying glass or use extensions tubes that work by spacing the camera lens further away from the camera’s body and its image sensor.
The rule is that the longer the tube (and the shorter the focal length of the lens it’s attached to), the closer you can photograph. But the longer the tube, the more light you need for correct exposure, which means slower shutter speeds or a more open aperture. With a normal 18-55mm zoom lens, what we see is projected through the lens to become small enough to be recorded on the tiny sensor within the camera. If a lens is mounted back to front, what is small becomes big, so a normal lens can be converted to a macro lens. Reversing rings allow you to securely attach lenses back to front but they are not available in New Zealand. However, you can get away with securely taping it onto the camera body.
It may not look pretty but a bit of strong tape can turn your normal lens into a very nice macro lens at no cost.
Two into one
This technique involves turning your camera to aperture priority mode (AV). The ˜f stop’ with a Canon will be showing f 00 (this is because the camera is not coupled to a lens), just know that the aperture will open up to the widest aperture of your lens (smallest ˜f’ number).
As you activate the light meter the camera will select the shutter speed. If you want to make the image brighter or darker, use your exposure compensation dial. You can still use the manual focusing ring back to front (unless you accidentally taped it up). If you set your focus to infinity then this will create to biggest magnification. For stability, I suggest you mount your camera on a tripod.
If you want to get an even bigger magnification, here’s an experiment you can perform with your basic kit zooms. Read this whole idea before you give it a go. The two lenses must be set to manual focus. It’s best if your lenses have the same filter size, that way they fit together better and you can’t scratch the lens elements (leave your UV or skylight filters on if you are concerned you might damage the front of the lens).
Mount the longer zoom on the camera, set the zoom on the lens to between 80 and 100mm focal length (look on the outside of the lens to find the focal length) and have this lens manually focused on infinity (the ˜8’ symbol on it’s side).
Set the smaller zoom to 50mm focal length and have it also focused to infinity. Now with a good-quality strong tape, attach the small lens to the longer lens, front to front. Mount your camera on a tripod for stability and find an interesting subject. To focus, move the camera in towards the subject or the subject in towards the lens, don’t try to focus by turning the lens or using auto focus. The front of the lens will need to be about three to four centimetres away from the subject. This lens is now more like a microscope.
This photo was taken using two kit lenses banded together to make them act like a macro lens. Photo: Jackie Ranken
Experiment with changing apertures and exposures just as you would normally. Use manual exposure or aperture priority. Make an exposure and evaluate it; check your histogram to see if your exposure is where you want it to be. Choose a white balance that suits the light. The dark vignetting or circle around the subject is caused by the lens and is more visible at small apertures (small hole = big ˜f’ number).
If you find you really enjoy this macro world, I would suggest you buy a true macro lens. The factors to consider when choosing a macro lens are the focal length of the lens and what camera body you are planning to use it with.
A tack photographed in macro mode
The longer the focal length, the further away the lens can be from the subject. This is handy, because if you’re creeping up on an insect there’s less chance of frightening it away and less chance of your shadow getting in the way. The disadvantage is that the longer lens requires more light for correct exposure, so your shutter speed will be slower ” and remember that your shutter speed needs to be faster than the focal length of the lens when you’re handholding.
You can see from the pictures here that the 100mm lens and the 60mm lens have the same magnification; this is because the 60mm lens is designed for the smaller sensor lens, not a full-frame sensor.
100mm lens about 15cm from the clock showing it at 1:1 life size. Photo: Jackie Ranken
60mm lens about 9cm from the clock showing it at 1:1 life size. Photo: Jackie Ranken
50mm lens about 10cm from the clock showing it at half size. Photo: Jackie Ranken
If you think that you might want to buy a full-frame sensor camera one day, you should consider the 100mm macro instead of the 60mm macro. If you want true 1:1 magnification then avoid using a 50mm macro; even though you can buy attachments that make it one to one, it’s best to get there in one go. There are other specialty lenses that offer up to five times magnification.
You can still use macro lenses as normal lenses, in fact the 100mm macro makes a great portrait lens and generally has a maximum aperture of 2.8, so you can achieve a nice out-of-focus background.
Understand that macro photography generally requires control of movement. You will get better results in a controlled environment where everything is still ” the subject and the camera.
I suggest at first you do your ˜photographic scales’ at home. Choose something that is not moving and in light that is constant, bright but not ˜hard’. Look at my setup.
Here we have objects (pins) on a table with the camera on a solid tripod.
You will need light (daylight is free), a sturdy tripod, cable release or remote (to avoid camera shake), reflectors and a shelf at a good height to photograph from.
Take notes of your observations and put them in your own words; it’s good to write down how you feel about the results of your experiments while they are happening. The metadata won’t give you this information.
The closer you move in towards your subject the narrower the depth of field/focus will be, so experimenting with aperture is a must. I suggest you start at f8 to f11 because this is a sweet spot (sharp part) in any lens.
Once you have discovered a composition you like, try the same shot with a wide aperture/hole (small ˜f’ number) and then a small aperture/hole (big ˜f’ number). The results will be vastly different.
If your shutter speed is between 1/15 sec and one second, I recommend you activate your mirror lock-up mechanism (if you have it) and timer. Alternatively, use an electronic cable release to minimise shake.
If you have ˜Live View’ then turn it on and use it, it’s very helpful here because it effectively activates the mirror lockup. With macro photography, the closer you are to a subject the narrower the depth of field/focus will be. To help pre-visualise what effect changing the aperture has, try using your depth of field preview button ” a small button on the camera body, close to the lens.
When this button is pressed the lens will close down to the aperture you are choosing to shoot with. If it’s a small aperture (this is a big ˜f’ number, say f22) then the light coming through the lens is small, which makes it quite hard to see the image because it’s dark.
To get around this you can use a black cloth to cover your head and the camera (not the lens, of course) because this will help the iris in your eye to open up and make it easier to see the image on the screen. But the best the trick is to use Live View if you have it.
On my Canon 5D MkII, the LCD image will automatically brighten up so you can see the effect aperture is having quite easily. Remember your depth off field/focus comes forward 1/3 and back 2/3 from the point of sharpest focus. As your lens closes down with a smaller ˜f’ stop (larger number), more comes into focus.
Macro is such a fantastic place to visit, you can spend hours just exploring a tiny square space. Try it.
Tips For Top Macro Photography
- The closer you are to a subject the narrower the depth of field/focus will be.
- Keep it simple.
- Experiment with different apertures.
- Focus on the most important part on the subject – the sharpest part of the image is where we first see an image. This is called ‘selective focus’.
- Photograph dark subjects against a lighter background and vice versa. This helps the subject to stand out and we see its shape. Be careful not to let your shapes merge and become confusing.
- Always be aware of what the background is doing; bigger depths of field (bigger ‘f’ number) can create distracting backgrounds.
A lens is a ground or moulded piece of glass, plastic or other transparent material with opposite surfaces, either or both of which are curved, meaning that light rays are refracted so that the converge or diverge to form an image.
Words © Jackie Ranken 2009
Expanding Your Knowledge
For more advanced techniques, check out Trick Photography and Special Effects by Evan Sharboneau.